Catholic Emancipation Campaign

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Catholic Emancipation Campaign

Legal restrictions placed upon Roman Catholics during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries—the so-called Penal Laws—had been reduced considerably by the 1790s. Many statutes had been allowed to lapse; others were modified or struck down by a series of Catholic Relief Acts in 1778, 1782, and 1793. Nevertheless, Catholics still labored under certain disadvantages: They were prohibited from holding senior government offices; they could not serve as judges, be admitted to the inner bar, or become sheriffs of counties. Above all, the oath of supremacy that was required of all members of Parliament effectively excluded Catholics from that body because it declared their faith to be heretical. Efforts to remove these restrictions and thereby "emancipate" Catholics began in the 1790s, but despite the support of influential figures such as Prime Minister William Pitt, they foundered against the staunch opposition of King George III, the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland, and a majority in the British parliament, particularly in the House of Lords.

Emancipation: Qualified or Unqualified?

Many supporters of emancipation believed that their opponents might be won over if sufficient safeguards or securities accompanied the lifting of the remaining Catholic disabilities. They proposed, therefore, that the government retain a veto over the appointment of Catholic bishops and possibly parish priests, and that the state control the salaries of the clergy. This was the position of the aristocrats, lawyers, and merchants who dominated the Catholic Committee, a Dublin-based pressure group that had led the fight for Catholic rights since the 1760s. By the first decade of the nineteenth century others on the committee began to promote an alternative strategy: a demand for unqualified emancipation by which Catholics would receive full rights without qualifications or safeguards. The most articulate proponent of this position was a young Catholic barrister from County Kerry, Daniel O'Connell, who argued that religious liberty was a universal right, that it could admit of no limitations, and that Catholicism was fully compatible with loyalty to the Crown. Bitter wrangles over qualified versus unqualified emancipation split the Catholic movement for the better part of two decades, rendering it less effective than it might otherwise have been. Even so, it is difficult to imagine that even the most unified of campaigns could have succeeded against the implacable resistance of the king and a majority in the House of Lords.

The Catholic Association

By the early 1820s the prospects of achieving full rights for Catholics appeared dimmer than ever. Though a Catholic Relief Bill containing veto provisions squeaked through the House of Commons in 1821, the Lords rejected it decisively. Moreover, the new monarch, George IV (1820–1830), was even more unyielding and vocal in his opposition to emancipation than his father had been. "What is to be done now?" lamented O'Connell to a colleague following the Lords's rejection of the Catholic Relief Bill in April 1821. "We are cast down by our enemies, and we may make ourselves despicable by either a stupid acquiescence or by absurd dissension" (O'Connell, Correspondence II, p. 901).

It was clear that if emancipation were to succeed, its supporters would have to do more than merely petition and lobby British statesmen. A new strategy emerged in 1823 when O'Connell and a group of colleagues launched an organization called the Catholic Association. The association was originally a small body with a restricted membership, but in 1824 O'Connell proposed that it open its ranks to anyone who could pay dues of one penny per month. As a consequence, the association transformed itself into a mass-based political organization that was without precedent in Europe. Tens of thousands of ordinary Irish people flocked to join, and in so doing, they acquired a sense of participating in a mighty crusade that would bring substantial improvements to their lives. At the same time, their regular dues, known as the "Catholic rent," provided the association with the resources to conduct a vigorous campaign on behalf of emancipation. After four years the rent totaled almost 52,000 pounds.

In order to collect the monthly contributions the Catholic Association created a network of local agents and committees around the country. This network, which consisted mainly of townsmen, members of the rural middle classes, and Catholic clergymen, helped to bind the association from top to bottom as it fed the movement's campaign coffers. Sympathetic national and provincial newspapers kept members apprised of the association's activities, and through their coverage of meetings and speeches, articulated Catholic grievances on a broad range of issues from tithes to the partiality of the judicial system. The association also encouraged its members to gather frequently in public meetings. People regularly came together at the parish level in what were nothing less than local political clubs; they also gathered from time to time in county, provincial, and national meetings of the association that often featured O'Connell himself. With the possible exception of the Democratic Party in the United States, the Catholic Association was the most advanced political organization in the world at that time.

Contesting Elections

The emancipation campaign suffered a temporary setback in 1825 when the government outlawed the Catholic Association and all similar political bodies of longer than fourteen days' duration. Though the organization eventually reconstituted itself as the New Catholic Association, a fresh challenge soon presented itself when the government called for a general election in the summer of 1826. In eight of the thirty-two county constituencies the association supported candidates who declared themselves in favor of emancipation. It was the first election since the Act of Union in which the electorate had an opportunity to vote on political issues rather than in line with traditional local rivalries. The most famous contest took place in County Waterford, where a young pro-emancipation candidate, Henry Villiers Stuart, challenged Lord George Beresford, who represented one of the wealthiest and most powerful landed families in Ireland. Stuart won decisively, thanks in large part to the organizational efforts of the Catholic Association. As in Waterford, voters in five other counties also defied their landlords and elected candidates favoring emancipation.

The parliamentary contests of 1826 demonstrated the effectiveness of concerted party organization and the potency of Catholic emancipation as an issue. These were put to the test two years later in what became the most dramatic parliamentary election in modern Irish history. O'Connell himself ran against William Vesey Fitzgerald, the incumbent and a newly appointed cabinet member, in a County Clare by-election in June 1828. It was the first time that a Catholic had stood for election since the seventeenth century. It was also an overt challenge to government leaders who would, if O'Connell won, be forced to choose between granting emancipation and confronting a popular upheaval in Ireland. After a vigorous campaign that saw the Catholic Association and its clerical allies mobilize enormous, well-ordered crowds on O'Connell's behalf, the Clare electorate returned a stunning verdict: 2,057 votes for O'Connell, 982 votes for Fitzgerald.

By that point Prime Minister Wellington and Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel realized that emancipation was unavoidable. Nevertheless, months of private negotiations followed, during which crowds in the tens of thousands, many in homemade uniforms, turned out in Munster to show their support for O'Connell. The demonstrations ended after a few weeks, but the situation remained volatile throughout the winter of 1828 to 1829. Finally, on 13 April 1829 Parliament passed the Catholic Emancipation Act, striking down the oaths of supremacy, allegiance, and abjuration. Catholics were henceforth allowed to sit in Parliament and hold all offices except regent, lord chancellor, and lord lieutenant. The victory, though long in coming, brought with it a new model for political action in Ireland and elsewhere.

SEE ALSO Electoral Politics from 1800 to 1921; O'Connell, Daniel; Politics: 1800 to 1921—Challenges to the Union; Protestant Ascendancy: Decline, 1800 to 1930; Veto Controversy; Primary Documents: Origin of the "Catholic Rent" (18 February 1824); The Catholic Relief Act (1829)


Hinde, Wendy. Catholic Emancipation: A Shake to Men's Minds. 1992.

Jenkins, Brian. The Era of Emancipation: British Government of Ireland, 1812–1830. 1988.

O'Connell, Maurice R., ed. The Correspondence of Daniel O'Connell. 8 vols. 1972–1980.

O'Ferrall, Fergus. Catholic Emancipation: Daniel O'Connell and the Birth of Irish Democracy. 1985.

Reynolds, James A. The Catholic Emancipation Crisis in Ireland, 1823–1829. 1954.

Gary Owens

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Catholic Emancipation Campaign

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